by Katie Julius

Olvera Street and the surrounding area, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, became the birthplace of the city of Los Angeles when, in 1871, 11 families settled a pueblo on the site. Present day Olvera Street was established some 150 years later in 1930 in an effort to preserve the historical buildings and culture of the area.

In the heart of Los Angeles lies a quaint little piece of California history amidst the hustle and bustle of a large metropolitan area. Many “first” and “oldest” buildings in Los Angeles still remain and are open for free tours, including the first church, first three-story brick structure and hotel, the oldest house, and more.

You are free to explore the buildings and sights and sounds of El Pueblo on your own – maps and information guides are available at most of the museums and historical sites. There are also guided tours that last approximately 50 minutes offered Tuesday through Saturday at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and noon. We chose not to take a tour because we arrived just after the 11:00 a.m. tour departed and wanted to be mindful of our younger kids’ attention span. If you are planning to visit with a group of 10 or more, reservations are required for the guided tour, which you can make by calling the Visitor Center at (213) 628-1274 or emailing [email protected].

We met in the Plaza (the former town square) where there are several plaques commemorating the founding of the city of Los Angeles as well as statues of two prominent figures in early California history. We then walked south to peer in the windows of the Pico House (the original home of the last Mexican governor of California). This building is primarily rented out for events and commercial use, but is still a beautiful to explore from the outside.

Our next stop was the Plaza Firehouse, first built in 1884. Inside are photographs, memorabilia, and historical firefighting equipment, including a horse-pulled fire “engine” and a traditional fireman’s pole that comes down from the second story. Our kids were very intrigued by the horse stables that were at the back of the firehouse.

Once we were done exploring the firehouse, we headed north to the Methodist church. The church has a really unique stained glass window situated so that it is best viewed in the mirror just inside the doors of the church. After that, we began our journey down Olvera Street (the primary destination for our visit).

At the south end of Olvera Street is a cross that is a marker commemorating the founding of the city. Most of Olvera Street is comprised of small shops, some with authentic Mexican artisan pieces including blankets, leatherwork, jewelry, decor, candies, and more. They are mixed in with some more modern wares (like slime, sensory balls, etc.) that are conveniently located at toddler height, so be watchful of little ones. Be sure to bring cash should you choose to make any purchases as most of the vendors do not accept cards.

About half-way down Olvera Street on the east side is the Avila Adobe. Built in 1818, it is the oldest existing house in Los Angeles. After extensive damage in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, it was restored to its present day design, reflecting the lifestyle of the rancheros of the 1940s. Visitors can explore the various rooms in the adobe – family room, office, kitchen, master bedroom, parlor, and children’s room as well as the thick walls indicative of adobe buildings. Another iconic part of an adobe home from this time period is the courtyard, which was used as an outdoor kitchen, a garden with traditional desert flora, and a work area.

In addition to the marketplace and museums/buildings, there are several restaurants that were busy most of the time we were there. We chose to eat at Cielito Lindo, a small taquito stand at the north end of Olvera Street that has been around since 1934.Their “world famous” taquitos are affordable, kid-friendly, and easy to take on the go. I do recommend asking for the avocado sauce on the side if you or your kids do not do spicy foods.

At any point throughout your visit, you may find yourself being serenaded by a mariachi band as they wander through the open-air shops and restaurants, offering yet another layer of culture and learning to your trip.

After we ate our lunch, we began our walk back down Olvera Street so we could return to the Plaza to read “Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street” by Leo Peloti. It’s a great story with beautiful illustrations of Olvera Street that your children will recognize from their own journey earlier in the day. (Please note there are several references to Holy Mary and the Holy Family as it’s written about the traditional hispanic Catholic tradition of Las Posadas.)

On our way back to the car, we stopped at La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Riena de Los Angeles (Our Lady Queen of Angels Church), the oldest church in the city and the cemetery next to it. You can enter the church (note the sign that requests silence as you enter), and observe the art and architecture. It is a current parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, so be sure to be respectful of the church and its grounds. There is also a small gift shop on site with many Catholic relics and souvenirs.

There are several locations that are part of El Pueblo that we did not visit, including the Sepulveda House, Italian Hall, Chinese American Museum, and El Pueblo Gallery. We did spend quite a bit of our time at the shops with our younger kids, so those with older children may spend less time there and more time exploring some of the museums and other buildings that make up El Pueblo. You could also make the short walk to Union Station, just across the street.

Though driving into downtown Los Angeles can be daunting, El Pueblo de Los Angeles and Olvera Street are located just off the 101 freeway and parking, while a bit pricey ($17.50 for about 2.5 hours), was easily available when we visited midweek. Because of its location directly across from Union Station, you could also take the Metro, Metrolink, or Amtrak if you do not feel comfortable driving. I recommend planning to arrive in the late morning and leaving in the early or mid-afternoon to avoid rush hour traffic as much as possible.

I was asked by a concerned parent about the homeless situation in Los Angeles, especially with regards to the typhus outbreak. While we were walking around El Pueblo and Olvera Street, we did not notice any homeless encampments or any people who appeared to be homeless. We passed several clusters of tents on the street just as we drove onto the freeway to go home. Based on our experience, I would not consider this to be of concern during a visit to El Pueblo.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles offers an affordable and informative half-day destination that would be of interest to families of any age, especially those who may be studying California history or Mexican culture.

All information is correct at the time of publication. Confirm details prior to making your trip.